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Focus on the ARF. What’s the future of the Alliance’s readiness forces?


One of the principle dilemmas which has always faced the signatories of the North Atlantic Treaty is the credibility of the deterrent. Would the whole power of the Allies be unleashed upon an aggressor who invaded a remote area of the NATO region?

The obligation accepted by the Parties is: “to take forthwith individually and in concert with the other members such action, including the use of armed forces, as is deemed necessary by each Party”. 


The necessity of visibly demonstrating the solidarity of the Allies and of their willingness to act together rapidly exercised the minds of the military members of the original Western European Union. Proposals were made for integrated European units, brigades and formations. Unfortunately, the practical difficulties seemed too great and ideas were abandoned. Once the NATO Treaty had been signed, headquarters were formed, but below that level, corps and divisions remained national. In early 1960 General Lauris Norstad, then Supreme Commander Allied Powers Europe, decided to set up a working party to define the organization of an international headquarters and a multinational brigade-sized formation that would become SACEUR’s own mobile task force. The recommendations of this working party were accepted by SACEUR and the Military Council and so, in March 1960, the Allied Command Europe Mobile Force (AMF) came into being. Its purpose was to make clear to any actual or potential aggressor that an attack against one nation would constitute an attack against all members of the Alliance, demonstrating the unity of purpose upon which NATO is founded. The NATO Force Structure (NFS) has changed substantially over the last 30 years.

In the Cold War it was characterized by a large standing force with smaller reaction forces configured for strategic confrontation and potential large-scale conflict with the Soviet Union. In the post-Cold-War period, the NFS shifted to a pool of forces, at various levels of readiness, forces generated and organized in response to non-specific crises or conflicts. In such circumstances, it was envisaged that the NATO force would be organized, at the time of the crisis, to meet the agreed political and military objectives.

Following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent invocation of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty during the Prague Summit in 2002, NATO members endorsed a comprehensive set of measures. These measures were designed to enhance the alliance's capacity to address security challenges affecting its forces, populations, and territory. The decisions taken aimed at providing NATO with well-balanced and effective capabilities, enabling the alliance to undertake a diverse range of missions and collectively respond to various threats, including terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Recognizing the importance of effective military forces as part of their overall political strategy, NATO members announced the establishment of the NATO Response Force (NRF). This force, comprising approximately 40,000 troops drawn from selected elements of Allies’ force structures on a rotational basis, is required to be technologically advanced, flexible, deployable, interoperable, and sustainable, covering land, sea, and air components. The NRF swiftly assumed a crucial role in various global events, demonstrating its versatility and effectiveness. In 2004, elements of the NRF contributed to securing the Summer Olympics in Athens and supported the Afghan presidential elections.  In 2005, NRF aircraft delivered relief supplies to the United States after Hurricane Katrina, demonstrating its capability for disaster response. Subsequently, from October 2005 to February 2006, the NRF was active in providing disaster relief in Pakistan following a severe earthquake, involving the transportation of supplies and deployment of personnel to assist in the relief efforts. Since 2014 and following the Russian invasion of Crimea, with the Wales Summit, NATO has developed Graduated Response Plans (GRPs), which have led to an adjustment to the NRF structure. The GRPs also linked the NRF force package with specific advance plans for regional deployment within SACEUR's Area of Responsibility (AOR). During this period, Allies' national forces have also undergone significant change, characterized by: strengthening in-place national forces; new deployments collectively by the Alliance and individually by Allies in support of national and regional defense; the modernization of equipment and forces; and the establishment of new NFS regional HQs. The enhanced NRF (eNRF) further improved NATO's deterrence and defense posture by developing the original NRF model into three echelons of graduated readiness: the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), the Initial Follow-on Forces Group (IFFG) and the Follow-on Forces Group (FFG). The NATO Readiness Initiative (NRI), introduced in 2018, was developed to strengthen and improve readiness, by defining clear and ambitious readiness targets.

Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, NATO responded by deploying high-readiness elements of the NRF in a deterrence and defense role for the first time. Thousands of additional troops and diverse military assets were placed on high readiness within the NRF, ensuring its capability to defend NATO territory. This marks a significant transformation, as highlighted by the 2022 Strategic Concept stating, "The Euro-Atlantic area is not at peace." Inevitably, the conflict in Ukraine raises critical questions about NATO's purpose, specifically its ability to deter Russian aggression against Allies and its strategy for self-defense if necessary.

In response to these challenges, NATO Leaders, during the Madrid Summit in June 2022, reached a consensus on a fundamental shift in NATO's deterrence and defense approach. This involved the creation of a new NATO Force Model, set to replace the NRF, which will enable an Allied response on a larger scale and with heightened readiness.  The upcoming NATO Force Model aims to provide a more extensive pool of forces, totaling 300,000 troops at varying levels of high readiness across land, maritime, air, and cyber domains. These forces will be pre-assigned to specific plans dedicated to the defense of Allies.

Why Change is Necessary: continuum of operations

Today, NATO operates in an age of constant competition, pervasive instability and strategic shocks that have changed the context for operations and how they are conducted. Alliance nations increasingly face threats from adversaries that are already competing across multiple domains, both covertly and overtly, to shape the operating environment to their own strengths. Multi-facetted threats are found in all strategic directions in an increasingly complex, hyperactive, urbanized and connected battlespace with no geographical boundaries and where all domains are contested across all levels of operations. The ubiquitous information environment exacerbates this complexity, operating with bias and opposing sentiments that influence audiences rapidly and without regard for truth or accuracy. This new era of simultaneous shaping, contesting and fighting is increasingly dynamic and actors are intertwined in a complicated mix of political relationships and economic dependencies. The basic requirement for heavy high-end forces across the Maritime, Land and Air domains remains essential. But, Cyberspace and Space are having an increasing impact on security and require a change to NATO's traditional military thinking, its organizations and its activities. Many capabilities in Land, Maritime and Air often depend on capabilities that operate in the Space and Cyberspace domains and therefore require some degree of cross-domain support. NATO must continue to adapt to a future battlespace that is persistent, simultaneous and boundless in order to deter/defeat adversaries across all domains and environments. The Alliance must develop the capabilities and capacity to understand the projected multi-domain threats posed by Russia and Terror Groups, as well as the challenges posed by China, so that NATO can continue to act decisively in the future across the five operational domains in an orchestrated and synchronized manner. 

Allied Reaction Force (ARF)

In 2023 at the Vilnius summit, the Concept for Deterrence and Defense of the Euro-Atlantic Area (DDA) was agreed. The DDA sets military activities and deterrence objectives in peacetime as well as military activities and defense objectives in crisis and conflict against the two main threats of Russia and Terror Groups. In this framework the Allied Reaction Force (ARF) forms a critical component of the New NATO Force Model, which supports the DDA Concept. This is an entirely new concept which provides multi-domain forces from across the Alliance to produce effects at shorter notice than was previously possible. The creation of the ARF places forces at the disposal of SACEUR, allowing for a rapid response to emerging situations across the continuum of operations.

An ARF is a capable of carrying out a full spectrum of missions. It can serve as a rapid deployable strategic reserve in crisis, it can be deployed to deter vertical/horizontal escalation, and it can also deploy rapidly in response to crises linked to other emerging situations. Multinational by design, an ARF is a clear demonstration of Allied commitment, cohesion and resolve. 

NRDC-ITA’s role as an ARF Headquarters (HQ)

NRDC-ITA’s role as an ARF HQ provides SACEUR with immediate capability to respond to crises while providing the time and space for the development of permanent ARF structures, providing a capability bridge prior to the establishment of the permanent ARF HQ. NRDC-ITA will also be vital as a mechanism to provide ARF Proof of Concept, Experimentation and Lesson Learned for the future.

The decision to appoint NRDC-ITA is entirely in line with its ability and professional approach, and its recent certification as a JTF 2023 demonstrates its ability to operate across a myriad of mission profiles, including Humanitarian and Disaster Relief (HADR), Non-combatant Evacuation Operations (NEO) and even combat operations. Operating as an ARF HQ will require a change from the traditional role of High Readiness Force that operates within operational and tactical frameworks, to a role with greater strategic focus and responsibilities. Throughout the remainder of 2023 and early 2024, NRDC-ITA will undergo a rigorous series of military exercises, academic studies and staff training, culminating with Exercise Steadfast Deterrence during which, in May 2024, it will receive validation as an ARF HQ, before taking on this role in July 2024. The new role assigned to NRDC-ITA will strengthen already established relationships with partner nations, while also making it possible to work with new allies, sharing experience and demonstrating the best principles of cohesion and legitimacy. The selection of NRDC-ITA is yet another demonstration of the commitment of Italy to the Alliance and its concept of Deterrence and Defense of the Euro-Atlantic Area. 

Story by Lieutenant Colonel Stefano PAGANI - (ITA Air Force – NRDC-ITA)


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